I just read Greg Kot's new book, Ripped, in one sitting. Kot's covered my music a lot over the years and I've found him to be an intelligent, thoughtful guy. Most rock critics are imbeciles; Greg's actually good at his job. But while the book is good for what it is - a brief history of the ongoing digital revolution - I couldn't help walking away disappointed that yet another writer has covered the advent of digital music and illegal downloading without once even broaching the subject of how music is going to be recorded when artists have no money to pay for recordings because people aren't paying for music. It's an issue near and dear to my heart, as you might imagine, and to most of my peers as well. Kot dutifully recaps the stories of the early winners of the digital revolution (Arcade Fire, Death Cab For Cutie, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, et al) but doesn't mention that they're the exception to the rule. Most of us - especially us little guys - have been squashed like bugs by illegal downloading. We little guys don't hate our record labels. We get paid good royalty rates and have signed fair deals with them. We don't subscribe to the notion that record labels are uniformly bad. And most importantly, for us they're still necessary.
The music industry is still evolving (or mutating, if you prefer) but one thing that isn't changing - and that never will change - is that the little guy (those of us who have nothing to do with, and are of no interest whatsoever to the RIAA) is still getting the short end of the stick. I haven't the slightest idea what to do about the latest wrinkle in the 101 Ways To Fuck Over Musicians saga. I imagine when the dust settles the people who have always made a killing in the industry will still be making a killing, and the only thing I know for sure is that if the industry changes to an ad revenue-based system, like Hulu, when the money's all been counted and plays have been prorated and so forth, chumps like me will be standing in line at the bank holding our $34.52 checks from whoever's running the show and that's just the way it's going to be.
So the world will always have its Billy Joel's, along with its hot shot Internet sensations of the moment. But what I want to know, again, is who's going to be paying for the recording of all this free music dreamed up by small-timers (which description, if you're not aware, covers most of us)? And if the answer is "nobody," that means that music made by people who are even a little bit outside the mainstream, off the beaten path, or just plain fucking weird, is going to disappear (save, of course, for those with disposable cash - the hobbyists and the rich kids - but those people tend to make music that people can't even be bothered to download for free). Long term, this isn't going to work out well for music fans. I'm not scolding. I'm not trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. I just want the emperor's distinct lack of clothing noted: the alleged death of the music industry is in actuality the death of interesting music.
I said the same thing six years ago when I first wrote about this stuff. And what's happened since? Music has become more boring than ever, that's what. Even punk rock has become more mind-numbingly mediocre than I ever remember it being before, and I came of age when bands like Youth Of Today and Corrosion of Conformity were hot shit with the dimbulb set. I haven't seen so many bands playing it safe and copying what's popular since the skulls and anarchy-symbol craze of 1984. If I hear another band aping the Dillinger Four and shouting their Cookie Monster vocals at me through their hobo beards I may begin to sob.
At the time I was first bemoaning the effect file sharing was bound to have on the best music, I was informed (rather condescendingly, as I recall) that all those fans who were illegally downloading my music were going to be paying me back in spades via sales of show tickets and merchandise. And while my showing in that department is dandy at the moment, it certainly hasn't picked up any in the ensuing six years. In fact, merchandise sales are almost exactly the same. Granted, these days that's cause to break out the bubbly and perch a lampshade on the old noggin, but I can't help but notice that this whole file sharing thing hasn't quite worked out as advertised - not just for me, but for any other working musicians I know either. Now maybe that's all a big, fat coincidence, but it's kind of hard to escape the conclusion that what this is, was, and always will be about is people getting something for nothing. It's not about crazed rock fandom. It's about as gobbling up as much free stuff as you can with little regard for what it is or might be, and virtually no patience at all when it comes to evaluating the goods because, after all, if it's free, what can it really be worth? And the reason people are doing it isn't because any sort of revolution has occurred; it's not a consequence of us poor artists having been unshackled from the chains of the evil record labels and their PR teams and A&R men and distributors and lawyers and accountants. It's happening because people can steal music easily and without any real risk of getting caught. That's the way the music business is these days and while I'm not happy about it I'm well aware there's no point in fighting it. I refuse to allow people to dress it up as something noble when it's nothing more than simple greed and theft, but don't get the idea that I'm raging against the dying of the light; I assure you that at this stage the cupboard has been rendered so bare that record royalties are more or less a moot point. I'd be happy to give away future albums, settling for crossing my fingers and praying for the odd licensing deal, if only I could figure out how to pay for the damned recordings!
Ho hum. I know all too well that musicians can't discuss the negative side of the digital revolution without being branded as whiners, prima donnas and cranky old Luddites who want everybody to go back to horseless carriages. But hey, Greg Kot? Maybe you could see fit to say a few words about it in your next book, huh?